Posted by: gcarkner | November 6, 2012

More Thoughts on Language

Language & Identity Formation

Identity formation is also about using language to self-interpret, to articulate, discover and define self. We must constantly answer the question, ‘Who am I and what do I stand for and what am I able to contribute?’ There is an important implication of the sociality of the self that is forwarded by Taylor (Sources, p. 34). Contrary to the traditional view in behaviourist social science, the self is not an object or substance in the usually understood sense. We are not selves in the way we are organisms and we don’t have selves in the way we have livers and lungs. As Taylor points out, it is a fundamentally misguided question to ask what a person is in abstraction from his/her self-interpretation. This important dynamic self-interpretation is worked out in community through a language and a story, which the individual has accepted as a valid articulation of various identity questions and orientation within society.

Human agency is rooted in this process; we continually work on becoming better conversation/language partners. Faculty can be a great help here, even if they are not your supervisor. There are many generous, passionate and caring faculty at UBC who would be open to becoming your interlocutor.GFCF is a forum for this kind of conversation with UBC/SFU/TWU/Regent Christian faculty as well as visiting scholars. It is good to broaden one’s base in order to benefit from the full possibility of university enrichment.

Taylor is also suggestive of the transcendent condition of our having a grasp on our own language, which we often discover in dialogue (Sources of the Self, p. 37), often when pushed to the wall by colleagues who disagree with our personal convictions. A return to transcendence is central to the recovery of one’s identity as George Steiner (Real Presences) has noted. Unlike Nietzsche and Foucault, who produce a literature of escape from the self, transcending the self in the Taylor model is to escape identification with any one particular voice in the conversation.

It means that we are able to step beyond our own place and to understand ourselves and the Other as playing a part in the whole, to see ourselves from the perspective of the whole. This allows for the development of ‘common space’. As Taylor puts it, “Some of the most crucial human fulfillments are not possible even in principle for a sole human being…. Our sense of good and sense of self are deeply interwoven and they connect with the way we are agents who share a language with other agents” (Sources of the Self, p.40, 41; Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart). We experience how good this feels when it happens.

Taylor notes that the contemporary quest for meaning or fullness can be met by building something into one’s life, some pattern of higher action or excellence; or it can be met by connecting one’s life with some greater reality or story, or both (Sources of the Self, p. 46). Ultimately for the believer, our conversation with God and his saints brings us into play with this transcendence of identity; we can make a transcendent turn into shalom or robust wholeness. Here one is using language in a very fruitful and positive way, even a healing way. One suggests that the liberated self together with other selves, operating under the grace of God, discovers such transcendence, and captures this sub-regent responsibility to constitute language (up to a point)—to name things and make culture, a creative task.

We notice thereby more of a dialectic two-way phenomenon between self and language. Self is neither totally transcendent of language (modernist tendency) nor a mere product or effect of language (postmodern tendency). Things are much richer and more complex and imaginative. As Peter Berger points out, there is a sense in which humans make the world (culture) and the world (culture) in turn shapes them and their descendants (Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality).

Language is a crucial factor in this shaping process, but so is the strong agency of the healthy self. Just recently I was talking with a PhD student nearing graduation who remarked that it feels really good when you eventually hammer the language into the proper shape—representing years of reflection and struggle. She has experienced this process of culture and knowledge making. You are literally a new person when you get through all those hoops and have that all-important final conversation with your examining interlocutors, including mentors who have believed in you for five and six years sometimes. Hopefully we can all say that it was worth all the sacrifice, loss of sleep, patience and pain.


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